On Abandoning My Friend

We were in elementary school, first grade. My friend, Travis (I’ve changed names), was the kid everyone picked on. He was a tall, glasses-wearing, brainy, shy kid. He was also my next door neighbor. There was a tennis court between our houses, and we often did silly things like jump around the court singing commercial jingles. (“They’re putting pink elephants in new Crispy Critters…”) During recess one day, several mischievous boys found a way to use multiple jumping ropes to tie Travis to a tree. He didn’t cry, but his helpless eyes met mine as the recess bell sounded. We were being summoned back to our classroom. I was torn. The rules said I was supposed to go to class–we got in trouble if we didn’t obey the bell. But there was Travis, bound to a tree. Could I leave him? I walked backwards towards the school, then shouted, “I’m sorry. The bell. Sorry.” I faced forward and ran back to class.

Of course, Travis was quickly rescued by the teacher, and those responsible for bullying him were reprimanded. Nonetheless, the image of me leaving my friend haunted me–especially later in my life.

In our late teens, Travis and I dated for awhile, he went on a mission, and after his mission, we dated some more. Many assumed we’d marry. One of my roommates told him, however, that he could “do better.” So (wise boy!) he dumped me. I entered a disastrous marriage, and emerged divorced and emotionally wrecked. Travis and I resumed our friendship (it was platonic now), and he helped me through the emotional ruins I then had to negotiate. My ex (who had himself been damaged by abuse) had told me that nobody could possibly love me. I was simply not lovable. On the phone, I tearfully repeated those words to Travis, and heard his voice break. “Margaret,” he said, “that’s not true. Don’t you ever believe that. I love you. I love you.” This was not the prelude to a marriage proposal. The week before, Travis had told me he was gay.

The year was 1983, and my first concern when Travis came out was that he would get AIDS. He assured me he was being careful. As my life stabilized, I became less concerned about AIDS and more concerned for his soul. I wanted him to abandon what I considered merely a bad decision. He told me that he had known he was “different” from the time he was seven, but I rejected that. Surely, homosexuality was merely a proclivity and could be set aside through repentance. I wrote him a long letter, begging him to come back to the faith, to get married and have children. I opened with the line, “I don’t know what it’s like to be a homosexual.” He read whole thing to a friend, and reported the friend’s words back to me: “She should’ve stopped there.”

It didn’t take me long to realize that his friend was right. I was in no position to judge. But by this time, my long friendship with Travis was gone. My notes to him went unanswered. We lived our separate lives for twenty-plus years, and only recently met again, when his father died.

I was nervous about going to the funeral. Would Travis bitterly remind me of how harshly I had judged him? Of how much I had presumed? Would he give me one look and turn away?

No, as soon as he saw me, he broke into a large, familiar smile, embraced me, and told me I was beautiful. At an appropriate time, we sat and talked. I apologized for being less a friend to him than he had been to me. He said I shouldn’t dwell on it. The friendship was quickly, sweetly restored.

The image of him bound to that tree, the image of me walking away with an apology but no remedy still hits me hard, however. By not standing up for him then, I contributed to his abandonment and pain. That won’t happen again.

Lest this blogpost turn into a talk about homosexuality, let me state that this is about friendship and love, not sexual orientation. It is a long overdue acknowledgment of how Travis helped me heal of my own emotional pain, and a call for me (at the very least) to do better now than I did then.

Comments

  1. Of all the things I have done wrong in this life, the times I felt I had let down a friend hurt me the worst.

  2. Loss of a long-time friendship can be a most devastating experience. One of my great pains at the moment is a friend whom I have had to step away from for the sake of my health and sanity. I miss her, but cannot be with her.

  3. By not standing up for him then, I contributed to his abandonment and pain. That won’t happen again.

    I am trying to teach my children how important it is to stand up for others. I hope they will do a better job of it than I did. Those missed opportunities are among my greatest regrets. Perhaps they are the biggest regrets.

  4. For me, one of the hardest parts of getting older is looking back at how my young self behaved. I caused a lot of pain and have many amends to make.

  5. This story hits home quite a bit. I know I have been on both sides of the fence, or the tree if you will. I’ve been the one who has left and the one who has been left. I know how hard it must have haunted you all these years, both things.

    I’m really glad that you have reconciled with your friend. It warms my heart.

  6. Molly Bennion says:

    Last night I was reading proofs of Mary Bradford’s next book, a book of poetry which Dialogue will publish. One line pierced me deeply: “I have loved and been unloving.” It is the juxtaposition of the thoughts that is so powerful. Of course we do both. But so often our loving and our unloving happen rather startlingly in the same breath, as in your telling, Margaret. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I still cringe at a couple of things I did to friends as a child, or even in high school. I try and remember those things when I am tempted to “turn away” from someone, either a friend, or who might be my friend, given the chance.

    I know that in our ward we have sometimes been critical of some of the investigators that the missionaries bring to church, and moan a little about the fact that the bishop has no veto power over whether or not an investigator can be baptized. Yet the Savior went among those who were powerless, who were ignored by their peers, and were looked down upon. One of the great lessons for me has been the sister with memory and health problems who needs a great deal of support so she can even attend church, and was baptized late last year. She doesn’t understand much, and remembers even less, including the names of the members who give her rides to and from church. Yet she comes, and has continued to keep coming, for almost 8 months now. I don’t think she could articulate why, other than she feels it’s the right place to be, and likes to be with us, even if she can’t remember who we all are.

    Great reminder for all of us, Margaret, that God is no respecter of persons. That’s something we have taken up on our own.

  8. I think many of us have people we’ve left tied to the tree in our lives. We’ve done it, and it’s been done to us. The trick is learning from it- and as Travis showed you, loving in spite of it. Thank you for sharing this personal experience.

  9. I think the question this brings up is what to do when someone we love makes decisions we don’t like. And I mean to take that question outside the homosexual context, since it is so loaded. For example, what if the friend was doing drugs or was going to cheat on his wife or was running a money-laundering scheme? In those situations, would it make sense to send a similar letter, and would doing so be a bad decision in the same way it seems to be under the facts at hand? Which brings up another question: is gently calling someone to repentance always a bad act if there’s a possibility you could change your mind in the future as to the egregiousness of the act?

  10. This is a fabulous and touching post. Thanks Margaret.

    I can recall many times I could have been a better friend. Let’s face it, it’s very easy to make those mistakes as a child, but it’s more important now that I (hopefully) know better not to leave my friends tied to a tree.

    There are lots of trees that one can get tied to. As a friend, I hope I can dispense with the analysis of how my friend came to be tied, and whether it was his own fault, and just do everything I can to help him get untied from the damn tree.

  11. Beautiful post. thank you for sharing something so personal.

  12. Margaret, this story is such a “coincidence”! Just yesterday, Becky Schmidt from my high school days (class of ’79) called me on the phone. She had just read some of my essays online about my coming out, and all the experimentation the church did on me during my time in high school. Deeply hurt by what I had endured, she found the courage to call me and apologize for her fears and homophobia that kept her distanced from me in school. She was sure she had off-handedly made rude, anti-Gay comments to me that hurt my feelings and left me feeling even more alienated. I assured her that even if she had, her friendship with me was bigger than that. Besides, all I remember is a vivacious, laughing Becky – brainy (especially in Math, which is still a mystery to me), sweetly dorky, and a really good friend who brought much relief to my tortured, suicidal adolescence.

    Margaret, although the many miles and a couple of states separate us, our friendship is one of the highlights of my life. I am so honored and blessed to count you as a friend. As we’ve shared our stories and grown together over the past few years, I have come to know that if you EVER see another person humiliated and tied to a tree for whatever reason, you will be the FIRST to step up and untie those binds, regardless.

    I am so very grateful to have you with me on this leg of our pioneer journey through this strange land, and I know that your wagon will be one of the first to circle around me when and if I need to be shielded from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”….and my wagon is ready to help encircle you and yours at a moment’s notice.

    FRIEND – such a beautiful word. It literally means beloved – from Freya, the ancient Germanic Goddess of Love. And you certainly remind me of Her – wild red hair and a heart as big as Wyoming!

    Big Love,

    Connell

  13. Chris H. says:

    Margaret,
    Thanks for the amazing post. I will be thinking about this one for quite a while.

  14. Damn, Connell, don’t make me cry.

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    What a wonderful post, Margaret. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been away from the Bloggernacle for a while due to a very difficult recent loss, and decided to check back in today. How lovely to read this. It brought tears to my eyes here in my office.

    After family, is there anything in the world even remotely as important as our circle of friends?

  16. Thanks Margaret for another beautiful post. Sadly, I have my own stories where I walked away from a friend. They haunt me. If Levinas is right, and the face of the Other speaks to us through the eyes you describe then perhaps we can take this solace. God has spoken to us. It was painful because we didn’t listen. Yet our continued pain shows that He is still speaking to us.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Beautiful, Margaret.

    I had a spotty record as a boy in this sphere. In second grade I stuck up for the picked on kid, ended up getting in a fight with one of his tormentors, and as we rolled around on the ground I hear a loud “crack” and felt a sharp pain in my right foot. It turns out I had broken my big toe and would have to be on crutches for six weeks. At the time I was just embarrassed, although today I think of hobbling around on those crutches as a badge of honor.

    But I wasn’t always so gallant. Childhood is very difficult terrain to cover honorably at all times.

    (And if the memory of leaving Travis at the sound of the bell still gives you pain, then be sure not to watch the movie A Christmas Story, as there is a very similar scene to what you describe in that film.)

  18. Thomas Parkin says:

    I want to say something about homosexuality and friendship, anyway, Margaret. But I promise it won’t be divisive – at least I hope not.

    In the days after the Prop 8 last fall, my wife and I had a fight that I thought might well end our marriage. She didn’t speak to me for something like three weeks, except on a couple occasions to tell me what I horrible person I’d become. In those messy, difficult weeks I prayed a lot, at length, with some broken heartedness. I’m familiar with the Spirit. After quite a bit of silence, I got a one sentence answer that came as a gentle but clear rebuke. “You need to have more friendly feelings towards gay people.”

    That came as a surprise to me. I lived on Capitol Hill, in Seattle, for many years – the gay center of one of the most liberal cities in America. In that time I interacted with gay folks all the time. I was on friendly terms with a gent at work who had left a Roman Catholic seminary due to his sexuality – and in hearing him talk about it, had felt his heartache at being separated from his faith. In all that time, it never would have occurred to me that I harbored less than friendly feelings towards gay people. It isn’t how I saw myself. All these thoughts are typical of the self-justifications that keep any of us from seeing ourselves truly, I suppose.

    In any case, for the last several months I have tried to observe my heart as I see these issues being discussed. And what I have discovered is that there are many times when a hardness comes into my heart. I’ve observed in my life that whenever I get a hard heart towards someone or something, my next course of action will be wrong. I never want to be a small hearted person towards anyone. And so I am trying to repent of this.

    re: friendship in childhood. I think I had a gift for friendship when i was a kid. I think many kids, do. It seems to come so easily to them. It is as an adult that I’ve been less than the friend that I should be. We should be reaching out to people and enjoying them pretty much all the time, I think. But I’ve become such a hermit.

    Thanks, M. ~

  19. MikeinWeHo–I’m so sorry for the loss you’ve just had. Be blessed.
    CraigV–You already know you’re one of my favorite people, and that you just alluded to another of my favorite people–Levinas. Because of other things which have happened this week, I’ve had Levinas much on my mind. Maybe I’ll share some thoughts later over at your blog.
    Kevin–You don’t fool me. You’re just trying to get a niblet. However, you’re right about the crutches being a badge of honor. Great comment.
    Thomas Parkin: This line of yours is one of the most important points to come out of this conversation: “I’ve observed in my life that whenever I get a hard heart towards someone or something, my next course of action will be wrong.” That should start another blogpost right there.

  20. We all misstep from time to time. Lord knows I have — and do. But those early years of our lives aren’t to be judged too harshly as we are yet in the learning stages of our existence. The key is that we learn, that we grow and work toward becoming all The Father would have us be. Margaret has obviously learned from those early experiences and I can say with every element of truth that she is, and has been, the best friend of my life. I know that she has “my back” and that leaving a friend tied to any tree is far from who this woman is today. I am grateful for her.

    Darius

  21. Dear Darius–thank you. You know better than most that I have NOT learned all of the lessons I need to. You’ve been a great teacher, my friend.
    Having Darius comment reinforces what MikeinWeHo said about the importance of friends, because my friendship with him is a sacred thing to me. Maybe all friendships are sacred. Sometimes, we don’t realize how precious the friendship is until the friend is gone. I have sadly had that experience in my life, and rejoice that the friend referred to in this post is my friend again.

  22. “Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,
    For friends at first, are friends again at last.”

  23. Latter-day Guy says:

    Thanks for this, Margaret. This post was in some ways an answer to prayer, I think. (Particularly touching was your comment, Thomas.)

  24. Thomas Parkin says:

    One of my favorite Joseph quotes is this bit – “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism”; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.”

    Even more than the wonderful movie last week, I enjoyed the privilege of seeing Margaret and Darius working together first hand. I just thought, here are two people who have got something right. Awesome. ~

  25. Thomas Parkin says:

    Latter Day Guy,

    :) ~

  26. Beautiful post, Margaret.

  27. Beautiful post. I am going to share it with my children tonight – and only wish I could be there in person to discuss it face-to-face.

  28. Darius speaks the truth.

  29. Margaret you always leave me stunned and thinking and you write so beautifully. I think it is a reflection of your soul. As has been said, I’ve been both tied to the tree and tied others, but friends have been a constant source of meaning and joy in my life. My patriarchal blessing even mentions the importance of my friends and it has been so. I watched the last Harry Potter Sunday with my kids (the last one out on DVD). The theme of friendship kept coming up and I’ve been thinking about this. In the end Harry expresses pity for Voldemort because he will never know friendship. That is the difference between them–Harry has known friendship and the giving and receiving of love.

  30. Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over;
    I only vex you the more I try.
    All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said,
    And nought to help it in this dull head:
    Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye.

    But if you come to a road where danger
    Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share,
    Be good to the lad that loves you true
    And the soul that was born to die for you,
    And whistle and I’ll be there.

    —A. E. Housman, More Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936).

  31. ““I’ve observed in my life that whenever I get a hard heart towards someone or something, my next course of action will be wrong.”

    I read that statement over several times and it has made me think about my heart. I have noticed my heart beginning to harden towards a very close friend who has assumed something about me falsely and has cut off contact with me because of it. It is not based on truth and I explained myself, but it hasn’t mattered so I have had to let go of the friendship. I have found myself angry at times at this person and wanting to never have anything to do with them if they ever decide to apologize for what they have done. It has caused me a lot of pain and heartache and I know that I am expected to forgive and move on. I hope I can do this before I ever have to see this person again and allow the situation to be resolved on my end whether we ever speak again or not. I wonder if time is an important factor in your friend being able to work through what happened between you two and if that is what it will take for me as well.

  32. This entire thread is marvelous. My hat is off to all of you.

  33. Thank you for this post. It brought me to tears, especially the reunion after all that time of not seeing your friend.

  34. CS Eric says:

    I, too hae been on both sides of the tree. In fact, being “tied to the tree” is what made us leave the town where I had the best job in my life. Too many people (mostly church members) left my wife and me to the “tree” and never looked back. It’s been four years now, and I still have trouble trusting even those who have made it clear they want to be my friend. Sometimes adults can be as cruel as children.

  35. Thanks Margret for sharing this important message.

    It was a pleasure meeting you last week at the screening.

    GEJ

  36. My apologies for misspelling your name.

  37. Antonio Parr says:

    Margaret: Once again, your thoughts are eloquent and profound. Keep up the great work.

  38. I just want to second what Ben Pratt said in #32.

  39. Thanks for this post, Margaret.

  40. AspieMom says:

    I am also grateful for this amazing post. Recently my husband had to tell me something that he knew would devastate me. He also feared it might end our marriage. I must confess that some of my reactions left my husband wondering if I would leave him tied to tree while I ran the other way….How blessed am I that he was so quick to forgive and accept me when I turned around.

    How is it that I am always receiving the mercy that I struggle to return? The words “a broken heart, and a contrite spirit” have taken on a new meaning for me. They are not just at the core of humility and repentance, but forgiveness as well. They are piercing me to the center, and I pray I never forget this feeling.

  41. Dammit Margaret, why you gotta go and make me cry in my cubicle. Thanks for the post. We’ve only spoken briefly once (at the Cupertino Sunstone conference) and exchanged a couple of emails, but I’ve always felt that who I am is safe with you. You exhude that kind of energy. Thank you.

  42. These are such good, sweet comments. I feel encircled by many friends. I’m reading _The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society_, which is set just after WWII. One section talks about a concentration camp. These are the words of a (fictionalized) former prisoner: “Elizabeth was my friend, and in that place friendship was all that aided one to remain human.”

  43. Margaret, thank you.

  44. Sincere application of the atonement, is always a beautiful thing.
    tDMg

  45. Margaret, not to bring down the very sweet tone of your post and the comments, but the first part of your story struck me…leaving a friend who was being bullied. I immediately thought of how many movies and t.v. programs show almost that very same imagery. The sweet kids in “13 going on 30″ and the classic scene in Veronica Mars, where she cuts down the kid tied up to the flagpole, even though the bullies who did it were seriously scary. I also thought of the times I turned my back, and the times I did stick up for others. Clearly this is a childhood issue that is so common–and other writers grapple with it as well. I imagine our characters are formed as we are faced with these dilemmas, mess up, feel bad, and do better next time. Oh the humanity….

  46. Beautiful wonderful post.

  47. The bloggernacle is an interesting place, but sometimes a gem like this bubbles to the top and keeps my coming back (kind of like that 4 iron on no. 11 yesterday will keep me going back to the golf course). The post makes me reflect on my various friendships, particularly one with a very good man that has lost his faith in the gospel. While my failures could fill volumes, I believe an effort to love rather than judge or abandon that friend constitutes one of my life’s great blessings. Thanks for the reminder.

  48. I have been disaffected from the Church for about 20 years. It is posts like this one that make me feel the tug of reconciliation. Thanks so much.

    I want to point out that Travis’s being tied to a tree was probably not unconnected to his sexual orientation. Children have amazing (and ruthless) instincts when it comes to difference, and even at that young age Travis probably felt different.

    Also, I want to thank Thomas Parkin for his comment. If it means anything, as a gay person of LDS lineage I also feel a strong desire to be nicer to Mormons. We need to heal this divide. I’m so sorry that Prop 8 caused a rift between you and your wife, and I hope things are better now. We all have so much more that brings us together than divides us. We should never lose sight of that.

    Thanks again, Margaret, your kindness and love.

  49. Thomas Parkin says:

    “We need to heal this divide.”

    It’s fraught with difficulties, mah brutha. On both sides, people feel what is dear to them, and deep with them, is threatened. There are some non-negotiables on both sides

    There was a comment made in GD a Sunday or so back. Basically, when someone says something in class that we think is wrong, maybe really wrong, or even just in a style that rubs us wrong, that is when we need love the most. Because when there are unkind feelings, the Spirit of God is hampered.

    Thanks for your thanks and well wishes. It does mean a lot. :)

    My wife is a sex-positive / bisexual / pagan/ atheist/ sometimes agnostic. We do not always see eye to eye. *smirk* But, I love her dearly – and we actually have a ton in common. A very common taste for many things in life – for instance, being far away from other people in remote and beautiful places. There are some things about her that make my rough spots an easier go, and there are something about me that make her rough spots an easier go. I think we’ll be ok. ~

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